The attack on the U.S. flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates affords a priceless editorial opportunity. Now that this column has solved the problem of securing Aghaming Park against the depredations of off-road hooligans and slovenly underaged partiers, (Aghaming Park conundrum, 3/22/09), it is time to turn our attention to the larger world out there in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia, where the ancient scourge of piracy threatens anew the world’s, and now America’s, shipping.
The attack of the Maersk Alabama is the first on an American ship in 200 years, and has excited a great deal of indignation along the blogging circuit. Indeed, the general consensus has been that the pirates should have their heads blown off, which should then be blown out of the water to make the point certain.
Currently, there is a sizable international navy patrolling that stretch of the sea which is something like four times the size of Texas, and the world is learning anew the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan: multimillion dollar engines of war are too-often designed mainly to fight each other, and can often be flummoxed by raggedy guys wielding cheap small arms. Sophisticated billion dollar naval vessels and aircraft that could blow a rowboat out of the water from miles away in a fog are easily disarmed by a hostage in the rowboat, which doesn’t cost your pirate a dime.
And it doesn’t help when all the lawyers and insurance men are fighting on the side of the civilized world. The obvious answer to the problem springs instantly to the mind of anyone who ever read Treasure Island: Why not just mount a deck gun on your freighter and arm the crew? It seems simple, but it turns out that it is cheaper, at least so far, to insure a ship against pirates and their ransoms, than the possible damage fighting them might cause, or liability problems posed by armed crews. (Pirate widows might well be able to sue in the International Courts.)
Most of the countries that flag merchant vessels will not allow them to be armed, not least because of the possibility that would pose of armed mutiny and subsequent piracy by the ship’s own crew – complicated world!
Meanwhile, the pirates, holding the skipper of the Maersk Alabama hostage, are floating without power in one of the ship’s lifeboats, under the watchful eye of the U.S. Navy. They are demanding $2 million in ransom and safe conduct, but at best, they are in a Mexican standoff. They can’t get away, and if they harm the captain they rearm all those billion dollars worth of high-tech weaponry. They are said, at this hour on Friday afternoon, to have called up reinforcements, comrades who are sailing to the area in a highjacked German vessel, its crew hostage, presumably to pick up the pirates and their hostage and make a getaway.
Okay, so you’re the American admiral – what are you going to do? Think fast, and remember that the whole world is watching, and not all of them are rooting for you.
I say, blow the rudder off the German ship and disable it so no one can get away, potentially freeing those hostages and their boat as well. Now, you can play a waiting game, and if you had brains enough to think yourself this far into it, you have also smuggled whiskey aboard, where your adversaries will eventually run out of food and water. You have all the moves, and they have none. However, I admit I’m not sure how you’re going to finally get the captain of the Maersk Alabama back alive.